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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Gerrymandering and the End of Democracy

The US Supreme Court issued a ruling June 28, 2006 affirming the rights of states to change district boundaries for elections at will. The case arose out of the 2003 redistricting within the state of Texas, coordinated in large part by (then) Republican Representative and Majority Leader Tom DeLay. To maximize the incoherence of the Court's decision and supporting logic, as part of the larger redistricting case, the Court rejected one change that, in the Court's opinion, unduly impacted Hispanic voters in a Laredo area district.

It's hard to imagine any other ruling that could make less sense or do more harm to the political process and the goal of representative, RESPONSIVE democracy within the United States.

Redrawing of district boundaries is intended to ensure equal proportionate representation of all citizens across all Congressional district so each member of the 435 member House represents the same number of Americans. The Constitution only states that House seats should represent equal proportions of citizens across the nation. It provides no rules on how boundary lines can be arranged to corral exactly X citizens in each district to satisfy the rule.

Historically, states have redrawn congressional districts once every ten years since the release of new census data obviously provides an official source of population data by which to drive the process. Tom DeLay worked with Texas state Republicans in 2003 to initiate redistricting to help arrange districts along demographic lines helpful to Republican candidates. The Texas Republicans argued at the time the changes were initiated to correct prior redistricting abuses by Texas Democrats. That argument is immaterial to the real issues raised by the Supreme Court's decision.

In the Court's ruling, it stated the Court had no basis on which to block states from changing district boundaries since neither the Constitution nor Congress cite specific rules limiting when redistricting can occur. While technically correct, this logic undermines the perfectly non-partisan practice of redistricting ONCE immediately after each 10-year census. This practice makes PERFECT sense since the census numbers are produced on a predictable basis without partisan influence and those numbers serve as a single NATIONAL source of population data about which districting decisions directly related to NATIONAL population are made.

What's so wrong with the Supreme Court's decision?

The redistricting changes in Texas had nothing to do with correcting boundaries due to sudden population shifts. If Louisiana decided to redraw its boundaries after losing 200,000 citizens in New Orleans to hurricane relocations, that makes PERFECT sense. In Texas, the boundaries were moved in 2003 to scatter voters deemed likely to vote for the "other party" across more districts, producing more safe seats for "our party." The Texas delegation to the US Congress swung from a 17-15 Democratic majority to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Tough luck for the loser, right?

Wrong. Gerrymandering disenfranchises voters who wind up as marginalized electoral minorities in the "victor's" district. However, gerrymandering also disenfranchises voters in the majority too. In the case of Texas, if you're a swing voter who might typically vote Republican but occasionally votes Democratic, your ability to swing the vote is eliminated if your district becomes a Republican safe seat. You can switch the labels any way you want, the process works the same regardless.

More safe seats in a representative democracy will be the death knell for representative democracy. Incumbents become more entrenched, less responsive to swing voters, more responsive to those lining their pockets and policy debates will swing to the extremes of any parties involved. Hmmm. Sound familiar?

If the Court's decision still doesn't jump out at you as a colossal mistake, just read these two paragraphs from the Yahoo news story on comments from Justices Roberts and Kennedy:

Chief Justice John Roberts, participating in his first major voting rights case, rejected that. "The state has drawn a redistricting plan that provides six of seven congressional districts with an effective majority of Latino voting-age citizens in south and west Texas, and it is not possible to provide more," he said.

Kennedy reached the opposite conclusion with respect to black voters in an area around Fort Worth. Rep. Martin Frost (news, bio, voting record), the area's former Democratic congressman, is white, and Kennedy wrote that since there had been no competitive primary for 20 years, "no obvious benchmark exists for deciding whether African-Americans could elect their candidate of choice."

Lots of words about "whites", "blacks", "Latinos". Lots of court speculation on what candidate might be able to win a given district based on past trends, the candidate's race, and demographics in the district. NOTHING that should come in to play when satisfying the Constitution's requirement to ensure equal numbers of citizens in each district to support "1 person, 1 vote" fairness.

How hard could it be to remove "gerrymandering" from our political vocabulary? Every 10 years,

  1. get the census data for the population of the US

  2. divide population by 435 to get X (number of citizens per district)

  3. for each state, devide its population by X to get D (# of districts in this state

  4. use address information collected by the census or inferred by the census (they don't literally COUNT everyone) and mapping software to create exactly D districts whose boundaries produce the most regular shaped borders with the smallest perimeter distance for each district that contains roughly X citizens

Voila! THOSE are your congressional districts. No political intrigue. All based on public data. Nothing based on race, demographic or economic data. Citizens with roughly similar political concerns based upon geography are grouped together yet politicians didn't get to choose the divisions for their own benefit.



Sunday, June 18, 2006

What's In Front of The ING?

After more than a year of ads, it seems we now know what's in front of the "ING".


As in MISSING a laptop computer brought home by an employee of ING who downloaded confidential data of roughly 13,000 employees of Washington, DC from a central database then took the laptop home only to have the laptop subsequently stolen.

How much of a trend to we need to get Congress to take concrete action to improve privacy and security practices of corporations collecting crucial information on hundreds of millions of individuals? Apparently, disappearing data from TransUnion, Mastercard, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Energy and ING isn't enough.

The US House actually has a resolution under consideration entitled the "Financial Services Protection Act" (HR 3997) that would impose a single national standard for obligations of corporations encountering stolen data and rights of consumers to be notified in the event of a breach. Sounds good, right?


The bill would actually prevent individuals from freezing their credit history from being reviewed unless they have an actual proven case of identity theft. Instead of being able to err on the side of caution and block their credit history from being consulted by someone attempting to open a new line of credit in their name, consumers would have to WAIT until the damage was already done.

It gets worse. The bill would put Treasury resources in charge of enforcing credit and identity fraud rather than allowing states to continue pursing cases as they see fit. Opponents also believe the proposed law would actually soften criteria for "reportable" breaches of data, decreasing the likelihood consumers would be notified of threats to the confidentiality of their data.

Besides adopting STRICTER standards on notifications for potential breaches, Congress needs to consider legislation to force corporations to adopt basic protections on billing and data warehousing software to improve protection of customer data. There are too many employees with too many paths to export data from corporate systems to mobile computers to completely eliminate the risk from a stolen laptop.

However, there is no reason customer credit cards numbers, Social Security Numbers and drivers license numbers should be stored in clear text within any database. No corporation or government agency needs to sort or organize data by these criteria so there is no need to save them in clear text. If encrypted, a would-be thief would wind up with information on phone numbers, addresses and names no more valuable than commercial data they can obtain from direct mail marketing firms and other publicly available resources.

This is not rocket science. It's incompetence.


#1) Info on 3623 consumers stolen from credit bureau Trans Union

#2) Info on 26 million veterans stolen from VA laptop

#3) Mastercard data stolen from Polo --

#4) Department of Energy employee data stolen by hacker

#5) Washington DC employee data stolen from ING --

#6) details on House Resolution 3997

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Zarqawi's Gone, Who's Next?

Officials from Iraq, the US military and the Bush Administration all communicated the correct message this week regarding the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Specifically,

  • one very destructive piece of the security problem in Iraq has been eliminated

  • teamwork and intelligence sharing between Iraq, Jordon, the US and probably others helped

  • availability of low-flying, relatively cheap Predator spy planes helped tremendously

  • Zarqawi's elimination provides opportunities for toning down Sunni / Shia sectarian fighting that is jeopardizing security and stability within Iraq

  • Zarqawi's elimination does not guarantee any improvement in security within Iraq or by itself improve timetables for reducing American troop levels

The coverage of Zarqawi's killing has NOT really done much to tie together other pieces of the puzzle, some involving good lessons, some involving dangers still not being addressed.


The most important positive news from Zarqawi's elimination is the degree of cooperation involved between Jordon, Iraq and the United States. His location was eventually determined after Jordanian sources confirmed the identity of a man who was providing "spiritual guidance" to Zarqawi. Identifying this contact allowed local Iraqi intelligence sources to start monitoring the "advisor's" movements, eventually tracking him back to Zarqawi like ants back to the nest. Once a definite time and place were confirmed, there's not much that's going to prevent an F-16 and a bomb from doing what they do best.

As various press reports pointed out, following these "ant trails" is likely to be the undoing of Osama bin Laden and the other nut jobs we are fighting. Though they've made a name for themselves with their terrorist acts so far, they feel compelled to occasionally publicize their actions or confirm their existence and relevance by audio and video recordings which HAVE to get to media outlets somehow. We're surely developing wider and wider nets on people who have acted as couriers between the terrorists and the media outlets and web sites that will allow us trace the couriers back to the source and destroy the nest.


Technology and Terrorism

What level of technology and expense is really most appropriate for fighting an asymmetric war with terrorists on a worldwide scale? Zarqawi was killed by a combination of

  • basic human intelligence - one name of someone visiting Zarqawi

  • reconnaissance collected by a relatively cheap, "throw-away" Predator spy plane

  • a conventional bomb delivered by a 30-year old fighter design (F-16)

A 30-year old F-16 is still very sophisticated technology in the absolute sense but is ancient by current military standards and dirt cheap compared to current fighter and bomber designs. The success of the "ixne Zarqawi" mission brings up an important question: Who in the world poses a material military challenge to America that requires anything more sophisticated than stuff we've had for 30 years?

Donald Rumsfeld's much talked about "transformation" strategy for the military is intended to provide a more flexible, responsive, agile military force by taking advantage of information technology, imaging technology, and better real-time sharing of information about conventional enemy forces. Transformation works great when we are battling anti-aircraft missiles, fighter jets, columns of tanks and platoons of troops in rows of trucks driving down a highway, etc. No one stands a chance fighting the United States military on those terms. That is probably why no one will ever try. The terrorists certainly aren't.

Our experience in Iraq points out a fundamental danger of a "transformed" military out of sync with larger political strategies. Fundamentally, we looked at Iraq, categorized its government as a threat, and decided to solve that part of the problem by toppling Saddam with an amazingly small military force (by historical standards). However, we didn't develop an appropriate strategy for the aftermath. The topple part of the plan worked as well or better than we thought but produced after-effects a transformed military is POWERLESS to address. You still need large numbers of "boots on the ground" to physically control territory, provide some semblance of security and protect basic public infrastructure required to transition back to peaceful civilian control. All of the Predator spy planes in the world won't be able to track thousands of roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

A transformed military has essentially given the United States a "universal house key" capable of easily opening the door to the home of any potential "bad guy" we face. However, any police officer or DEA agent will tell you that getting in the house is one thing, eliminating the threat and getting out safely is another. The countries we have targeted with our "universal house key" have turned out to be booby-trapped in both the actual and political sense.

Who's Next?

Grab the keys to the wayback machine and think back to July 2003. Osama was at the top of the bad-guy list and virtually no one paid attention to Zarqawi. Other than a reference in Colin Powell's infamous speech to the UN, try finding any news story involving Zarqawi dated prior to August 2003. As far as Iraq and the United States were concerned, he arrived FROM NOWHERE and was completely off our radar before he began publicly taking credit for terrorist attacks in August of 2003.

In reality, he didn't arrive from nowhere. He grew up immersed in a climate of militant Islam, made contacts with other militants in the waning days of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and was further radicalized by a 7-year prison term served in Jordan for attempting to topple the Jordanian monarchy. In other words, he spent years honing his terrorist strategies and irrational justifications in the chaos produced by a war and associated civil strife.

Is it any wonder that chaos and strife are exactly what he worked to produce in Iraq? The same forces that warped him have now warped another generation of teenagers who are likely to make up meaning in an Islamic jihad out of the otherwise meaningless chaos and destruction they deal with every day. Within two days of Zarqawi's death, there are already reports of beheadings performed by another batch of terrorists operating within Iraq.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

The fixation first on bin Laden then Zarqawi needs serious review. Though bin Laden and Zarqawi have garnered the most attention, the record of actual and thwarted attacks throughout the world really points to a more un-coordinated, un-centralized terrorist campaign. Those planning attacks may claim similar (or identical) motives but the effort involved in the attacks really does not require much coordination or money. Anyone with access to high-explosives (we left TONS unguarded within Iraq in our rush to "capture" Baghdad), timer devices or cell phones and warped teenagers or twenty-somethings dumb enough to die can pull off an attack.

This is not the type of organization that will collapse and disappear if you eliminate the head. The ideas on which the hatred is based are too simple, too wrong, and too easy to reproduce and regenerate for the hatred to be eliminated with three or four big hits. You have to "drain the swamp" instead of trying to kill the mosquitoes in small groups.

What SHOULD We Teach in War College?

The same question has been occurring to me as I read stories about the latest class of West Point graduates, the latest round of roadside bombings and new training techniques for recruits sent to Iraq and elsewhere: What kind of curriculum do you teach to recruits about "war?"

War used to involve large numbers of organized, uniformed troops engaging each other in specific locations and using increasingly lethal technologies to kill the people wearing the other uniform. As war tactics "progressed" (or maybe regressed), certain rules of thumb evolved about

  • protecting high ground that provided visibility into the opponent's position and movement

  • properly staffing and protecting supply chains

  • organizing intelligence and battlefield communication

  • designing combat training to habitualize behavior that can keep you alive amidst the organized chaos

  • later strategies for air and naval attacks and defenses

Have we had a war that meets this description since Korea? The evolution of mass-scale killing technology hasn't eliminated war, but it has virtually eliminated the concept of a traditional "front" between easily (willingly?) identifiable warring combatants. Instead, war has "devolved" into one of two patterns:

  1. asymmetric warfare between a super-power level force and underground terrorist forces

  2. macabre, genocidal attacks between similar third-world level powers or factions doing battle in places about which the super-powers care little

CBS ran a story on the Evening News this week about a new program the Army has developed that trains forces on response tactics for roadside bombings. One person commented it was the most effective, realistic training one could possibly get for a bombing.


How does it help you prevent the bombing? How does it help you eliminate the supply chain that is producing the bomb? How does it help you tap into the communications that are planning the placement of the bombs?

It seems the REAL training needs to take place higher up the chain. Our civilian leaders need training on creating a long-term strategy in better sync with the short-term attack capabilities available to a "transformed" military. Instead, our government is picking poorly defined battles, using tactics for initial attacks that destabilize far more territory than we are committing to control and secure, then training our troops on being better cannon fodder amidst the chaos.

That's some curriculum.